The Dinner Table is George Segal’s first ever tableau work, which incorporated his newfound technique of dipping cloth bandages in plaster and applying them directly to the human form to realize life-size sculptures. Every crease of clothing, every curvature of the body is preserved in time; the simple beauty of human interactions captured in a single moment forever. Despite their ghostly appearance, Segal’s scene is not an informal gathering of anonymous figures, but rather a carefully curated group of close friends. George himself sits center holding the teapot, his wife Helen seated to his left, together accompanied by close friends: artists Allan and Vaughn Kaprow, Lucas Samaras, and longtime Village Voice cultural critic Jill Johnston.
Unlike painting, which was the basis for Segal’s academic training, there is no direct opening onto the work. The friends occupy a space that is their own, and that you, perhaps intrepidly, are infringing on. Segal’s figure faces into a mirror, which if you stand behind him, brings your reflection into the scene. But the dynamic, according to Segal’s artistic principles, is less about the interaction itself and more focused on the spatial relation of the figures to one another; how the figures relate to the every day objects they are incorporated into (literally) as plaster forms, and the emotional charge that their lifeless plaster bodies carry. Harkening back to his roots as a painter, Segal recounts the preparation that went into the piece. “I asked people to sit around a table or stand at the table, having a general idea of knowing that I wanted a certain gravity, that I was composing the empty air volumes along with the positive volumes of their limbs and that the literal quality of the space was important in the composition ...” (G. Segal, in J. van der Marck, George Segal, New York, 1975, p. 74).
Segal was born the son of Jewish immigrants. Growing up in the Bronx, a full-time career as an artist was not an option so he satisfied his hunger and talents with select painting classes at Cooper Union. During the Second World War, his family relocated to New Jersey and developed a livelihood as farmers. It is in this rusticated setting where The Dinner Table was developed. Helping on his family farm, eventually beginning his own in South Brunswick (later the site of his studio), Segal simultaneously earned a bachelors degree from NYU under the tutelage of Hans Hoffman. It was here he met the Kaprows and was introduced to Abstract-Expressionist techniques that would come to directly influence his sculpture; the thickness of the plaster bandages built up with the same impasto canvases of his contemporaries.
Segal is seen as a bridge between the Abstract Expressionists with whom he studied and the Pop Artists he became a contemporary of. “With his crude sculptural forms … placed in an environment of everyday objects, Segal had found an effective means of closing the distance between the abstract space of a formalist generation and a new art of psychological responses and environmental definition.” With nearly a decade of painting under his belt, his sculptures were able to take on “a more literal apprehension of space” and a “sense of actual life and the dynamics of human interaction” (S. Hunter, George Segal, New York, 1984, p. 7) In fact, the exhibition of The Dinner Table in 1962 in the Sidney Janis Gallery’s show The New Realism marked Segal’s first public showing with the Pop artists. In his use of space and creating windows onto everyday life that Segal evokes the work of Edward Hopper. Both artists’ figuration and use of space is a strong and key element of presentation as we see in Hopper’s Office in a Small City, 1953. Mark Rothko once called Segal’s sculptures “walk-in Hoppers”—a compliment no doubt to the young artist. (M. Friedman and G. Beal, George Segal: Sculptures, exh. cat., Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 1978, p. 68).
Even if not symbolically intentional, there are technical aspects of Segal’s sculpture that beautifully intensify his human forms. For example, Segal required his subject’s to close their eyes before thickly layering on plaster strips to contour their face. Nivea cream was used to coat the under layer for protection and easy removal. Such that, upon closer inspection, all members seated at The Dinner Table are present with their eyes closed. If eye contact in both human interaction and in painting and sculpture is one of the most dominant features of establishing a human presence, it is one Segal was obliged to be without given his medium. However, this does not intrude on the realism of the scene. It adds, if anything, to the dreamlike stage set by the white figures in their purposeful engagement with one another. Detailed inspection of each face reveals a level of detail than is not lost in the lack of eye contact. Each figures’ form provides ample dynamism to the energy of the space. The solidified relationship among the figures, preserved in plaster within the boundaries of the everyday objects the scene incorporates, establishes a Pompeii-esque effect. Your vantage point becomes that of the onlooker onto a scene spatially frozen in time.
Cezanne’s Card Players is thought to have also had an influence on the convergence of The Dinner Table. As Segal recalled “As I analyzed that painting, I saw how the leg of the man bore a relationship to the leg of the table and I became very much aware of the space in between. I made the step from legible to real space which went against all I had been taught for the Abstract-Expressionists had insisted on flatness of surface and lack of illusion” (G. Segal, op. cit.). Segal recalled at the Janis Gallery opening an onlooker inquiring in shock upon encountering The Dinner Table. “What is it supposed to be?” she wanted to know, to which Segal replied “It is supposed to be Cezanne” (S. Hunter & D. Hawthorne, George Segal, New York, 1984, p. 68). The Dinner Table draws upon every day life and the human experience in a way that harkens back to the classical figuration of his predecessors, but keeps at its core the unique feel and sensibility of his medium. In dealing with the every day and familiar, Segal was communicating through a known ‘Pop’ language just as Lichtenstein, Indiana and Warhol were, but stripped down to a language that relied on form and the dynamism of human emotion.